Healwoman Dark Moon is the first of a series with hopefully four more books to follow as soon as I finish the one I'm working on. The first four segments of the First Book of the story are to follow. There aren't really chapters but once again casts of thousands. Hope you enjoy. The book is available both in electronic and print editions.
Janet Lane Walters
Vanilla Heart Press
1 The Hodara of Healing in Bethsada
Mabe sat on one of the stone benches in the Grotto. The Eldest had called her here and she didn’t know why. She didn’t think she had done anything to deserve a judging, but why else would the god and goddess want her presence? Soon, the moon would rise and she would dip her hands in the chill waters of the crater lake. Midra and Midran would speak. The only time she had heard their voices had been the night she’d finished her training and had been accepted as a Healwoman. She rubbed her hands along her arms.
The Eldest touched her shoulder. “The time is near. There are things I must tell you.”
“Are you sure ’tis me they want?”
“You are part of their plans for the future.” The old woman smiled. “In the days of yore, the Three of Midra--Seer, Warrior, Healer--united with their mates. Together they defeated those who embraced the dark faces of Midra and Midran. For a time, the priestesses and priests who served the god and goddess walked in the light and brought miracles to the land. But as time rolled on its circular path, what was once came again. The dark face of Midra enthralled the priestesses. They turned from the light. Then the power of the goddess faltered. Midran drew his priests into the shadows. Still, what was will come again.”
Mabe nodded. She’d read the old tales kept in the archives. She had found them fascinating, but were they true? They told of the days when the face of the goddess had darkened. ’Twas then the Healwomen had walked away from the temples to found their own place. In the years that followed, the temples had ruled and men had little power in ruling any of the four divisions of the land now known as nomes. Gradually, the priests of Midran had gained strength, first in the light. Then they had embraced the dark face of the god.
She glanced at the dome over the cavern. Rays of moonlight shone through the four crescent shaped holes, one for each nome. Keltoi, Sippal, Nilos and Incal. Bands of color--red, yellow, blue and white--spread across the water. The arrival of the colors never failed to startle and amaze Mabe. What caused them to appear? She turned to the Eldest. “What do the legends have to do with me?”
“One will come from Keltoi. She is a daughter of this nome. Her lineage rises from the Seer, the Warrior, the Healer and their spouses. She will have four talents and will be the gleaner who finds the Four and Four. One pair for each nome. They will bring light from darkness. You will seek and find her. Bring her to Bethsada so she can enter the hodara and learn.”
Mabe nodded and accepted the task. She felt both humbled and excited to be chosen. “When do I leave?”
The Eldest rose. “The god and goddess will tell you when.” She placed her hands on Mabe’s head. “Seek their blessing. Their commands are for you alone.”
Once the shuffling footsteps of the old woman no longer echoed, Mabe closed her eyes. Her thoughts turned inward. She had hoped to remain in Bethsada and join the other women who taught in the hodara. Though her talents in Earth and Fire were moderate, her years of travel had brought her knowledge of the customs and ways of the people in each nome. This knowledge was valuable to the Healwomen who staffed the many hodaras.
She rose and walked to the rock shelf surrounding the crater lake. She knelt and dipped her hands in the icy water. “Midra, Midran, I have come. What would you have me do?”
As the voices of the god and goddess sounded in her head, awe filled her being. The desires to laugh and cry co-mingled. She remained silent and listened.
*Go. Seek the one who will find the Four and Four. Beware all who serve the dark faces. They will try to keep you from completing your task.*
“How will I know the one I seek?”
*She will find you, for she prays for refuge from the ones who slink in the shadows.*
“And the enemies?”
*One you know, for you have faced and defeated her in the past. Of the other, if he knew the girl was his daughter, he would be filled with joy. While he is not of the dark, he might seek to sequester her so her growth would be stunted.*
*Of her enemies, there are two she must face. One would see her dead. The other will crave her as a possession. Rise. Gather your supplies. Choose a companion for your journey. On the morrow, leave for Keltoi.*
Mabe sank back on her heels. She dried her hands on her skirt. She rose and left the Grotto. There was much to do before morning. As she strode through the tunnel, she considered who to ask to accompany her. Glena was her choice.
Ulrica, the Voice of Midra in Keltoi, stood on the forecourt of the temple. The massive wooden gates parted and she watched the riders approach. A chill wind whipped leaves from the courtyard orchard trees sending them skittering across the paving stones. Clouds shrouded the pale midday sun and warned of an approaching storm.
An omen of strife to come, Ulrica thought. But every encounter with her sister brought a battle of wills. Let her argue. This time I have the means to force her to cede one way or another.
Temple warriors in their brilliant red divided skirts and paca lined scarlet cloaks formed a row on either side of the gate. The five members of Bodlesa’s party entered. Ulrica smiled. She hadn’t expected her sister to answer the summons to bring her only and unacknowledged daughter to the temple. Which of the four women was the girl?
The priestess’ eyes narrowed and she studied the four. Only a daughter born of Bodlesa’s body was acceptable as Ulrica’s heir. Ages ago, the priestesses of Midra in Keltoi had decided the Voice of their temple must remain chaste and her successor would be found among her sister’s daughters. Until now, Ulrica’s clan had held sway in the temple. If her twin continued to evade another childbirth, the rulership of the temple and the nome would pass to another clan.
One by one, Ulrica dismissed the women. She stared at the youngest who wore the brown garb of a drab, making her fated to serve others as little more than a slave. The girl rode a dun-colored dunkie. The small riding beast plodded as though exhausted. Though her hair was a pale red hue and her features were dainty, the girl bore a startling resemblance to Bodlesa.
How dare the Keltoi dishonor her only child? The girl had never been claimed by Bodlesa or her spouse, thus she couldn’t be heir to the nome. Yet, her lineage allowed her to enter the temple.
Ulrica released her held breath. The girl was here and would remain. Ulrica glided down the broad stone steps and waited for her twin to dismount. “Well come, sister.”
A scowl brought ugliness to the face of the woman called the fairest of Keltoi. Ulrica had often wished she’d been blessed with her sister’s vivid beauty. Though twins, they were dissimilar. Bodlesa had a mass of brilliant red hair, eyes of flashing emerald, and a well-endowed body. Ulrica was a thin, pale copy. Only her recognition that arrogant pride coarsened Bodlesa’s features blunted Ulrica’s envy.
“I’ve come.” Bodlesa tossed her steed’s reins to one of the warriors. She grasped the short but lethal horns of the reddish brown bihorn and vaulted to the ground. Her kilt of red, blue and yellow stripes rose, then fluttered into neat folds.
“A room has been prepared for you and your serving women,” Ulrica said. “Since I know how much you dislike cold, ’tis an inner room. A fire has been kindled in the ingle.”
“Even knowing this, you dragged me from the comforts of the megara for reasons you chose not to reveal.”
Ulrica laughed. “And you answered for reasons you choose to keep secret. Face facts, sister. We are much alike.”
Bodlesa scowled. “The Dark Moon nears the end of its cycle. Winter comes. Why have you called me here? What matter of importance could not wait until spring?”
“Why have you obeyed when for lunars you have ignored my requests?” Ulrica drew a deep breath. “The goddess has a need.”
A mirthless smile curved Bodlesa’s full lips. “In time I’ll tell you.” She snapped her fingers and gestured to the three older women. “Take my packs to the room set aside for me. See that mulled wine is ready when I arrive.”
“Where are your guards? Surely you didn’t travel from the megara with only four women.”
“Do you think I would bring my men here to be feted by the temple warriors? They are camped several kils from here.” She pointed to her bow. “Have you been walled in this place so long you’ve forgotten how to use weapons?”
Ulrica frowned. What was her sister planning? Why did she deny her men the chance to enjoy the pleasures the warriors could provide? “The duties of the Voice leave me with little time for play. I’m surprised Prasutus allows you to be armed.”
“That one.” Bodlesa’s lips curled. “If he were not chieftain of our clan’s strongest rival, I never would have wed him. He’s crude. I make no complaints about the women he futters or the hunting trips that are little more than orgies. Why should he restrain me?”
“He flirts with the teachings of Midran. The day will come when he places you beneath his boots the way those cursed priests wish to place all women.”
Bodlesa laughed. “Those priests are men and must slake their lusts in the same manner as those men who wear no robes.”
Ulrica held the urge to slap her sister in clenched hands. “We have much to discuss.” She beckoned to the girl who had remained beside her shaggy mount. Ulrica turned to one of the underpriestesses. “Take Norna to the novice’s room and see her suitably garbed.”
Bodlesa paused on the top step. “She isn’t here to become a priestess or your heir.”
“Midra cares nothing for your wishes in the matter. When the bells for the fifth hour ring, you will present yourself in my quarters to discuss the will of the goddess.” Anger curdled in Ulrica’s gut. She watched her twin stride into the temple. In the lunars since their last meeting, Bodlesa had lost none of her hauteur. She’ll soon learn she cannot control everything.
* * * *
Ulrica counted the chimes. When the fifth sounded, she stared at the door of her suite. Her muscles felt like taut wire cords. Memories of the many times she’d contended with her sister roiled in her thoughts. The only clear victory Ulrica could remember was the day their aunt had chosen her to enter the temple. Even that day had been tainted. Bodlesa had craved the position as the Voice of Midra in Keltoi. Ulrica stroked the scar that ran from her shoulder to the wrist. On the day she’d left the megara for the temple, Bodlesa’s anger had changed to blind fury. One slash of her knife had nearly cost Ulrica her life.
The door opened and crashed against the wall. Bodlesa stalked into the room. “I am here. Why have you chosen to raise the misbegotten from her lowly place?”
“She is of our clan and your get. Every year, the number of girls suitable to serve Midra dwindle. There is no other of our clan who is suitable. The temples of the other nomes are in ruins. The priestesses hide. The priests of Midran clamp tighter bonds on all women.”
“Norna isn’t pure. Though her father was Keltoi, he denied his clan to walk in Midran’s way. I brought the girl to serve you as a drab.”
“Your own daughter? If you do this, who will become my heir?”
Ulrica laughed. “Will Prasutus let her go? Though I don’t live in the megara, I know what happens there. These days, she’s his favorite bedmate. If he gets a son from her, trouble will flare.”
“She has left the nome but I can call her back.”
“There is another reason she is unsuitable. Though she wears our clan’s stripes, she’s not of pure lineage. Her grandfather was from Incal. Norna’s line is pure. I will have her.”
Bodlesa prowled the room. Her braid switched like the tail of an enraged firelion. “Prasutus wants her. If she stays in the drab’s quarters of the megara, he will have her. He could even come here and take her.”
“If she were my heir, he wouldn’t dare.”
“I caught her trying to flee the nome. She wanted to go to the Healwomen.”
Ulrica spat. “Those abominations. Once they served Midra, but they have turned their faces from Her. They say they serve the god and goddess the way all priestesses and priests once did.”
Bodlesa laughed. “Do you fear them? The priests use them for their healing skills and for the sons they birth.” She waved her hand. “I have set a plan in motion. Britha joins them to sow discord in their ranks.”
Ulrica’s hands fisted. “Have you trained your daughter to do the same in the temple?”
Bodlesa scowled. “Trained her? I have had nothing to do with the girl. I was but fourteen when I birthed her. That Healwoman Mabe gave the infant to a drab. Norna has learned to labor like the women who cook, scrub and grub in the earth. ’Tis said she has a way with beasts.”
“And she can hate. Think carefully about your choice. Have you no love for her?”
“I didn’t choose to give her life. I was bedazzled by a handsome face and a well-formed body.” She moistened her lips. “’Twas a challenge to tempt him. He was virile and like a drug. To my regret, I bore the fruit of his passion.”
Ulrica stared at the wall. In that pairing, Bodlesa had been the aggressor. Her lust for the Militos subaltern had been the talk of the megara. “And he refused to put his desire for the priesthood aside. For that reason, you deny her.”
“So does her father.”
“Does he even know he has a daughter?”
Bodlesa laughed. “Why would I send the news to him? Will you accept her as a drab? Otherwise, she dies.”
“I’ll ask Midra to guide my decision. Once the evening meal ends, I’ll go to the chapel and seek her guidance. Will you accept Her command?”
Bodlesa’s smile failed to erase the ice in her eyes. “Hers, not yours.”
Ulrica hid her own smile. Her twin was a fool. If not Norna, I will have my heir.
The cup is prepared. “Come to the chapel after the curfew bell.”
* * * *
The stones before the altar in the apex of the chapel held the chill of the Dark Moon and brought thoughts of the coming winter. Ulrica steeled herself against the numbing cold and stared into the scrying cup. The still water showed no images of what had been or what was to come.
She breathed deeply and sought to calm her anxiety. A young woman’s fate depended on the answers she received. “Midra, my sister must be swayed to follow the way You would have her walk. The misbegotten must enter your service. If not, there is no one of the clan Keltoi to serve you. This temple will fall the way the others have.”
The water in the cup stirred. Colors appeared. Red, blue, white, yellow. The churning increased. *Beware.*
“Midra, beware what? Does it mean if Norna becomes a priestess she will bring danger?”
Red filled the cup. The Warrior’s color and that of Keltoi. The curfew bell chimed the ninth hour and cut short her meditation. She heard the scuff of boots behind her. Bodlesa’s laughter rose. Ulrica drained the cup and placed it on the altar. She rose to face her sister.
“What said Midra?” Bodlesa laughed.
“I haven’t interpreted the meaning of Her signs. Will you permit Norna to enter the temple as a novice?”
“You know the answer. She is doubly misbegotten and has no place in life except as a drab.”
“Doubly? What do you mean?”
“She is unacknowledged by dame or sire.” Bodlesa sat on one of the benches. “Her first cries were made to the Dark Moon sixteen years ago. Is it not among the teachings of the temples that those born during that lunar bring disaster to all? I believe I am right.”
The impact of her sister’s words washed through Ulrica. As she struggled to find an answer, she heard sounds in the hall. Had the warriors arrived early or was some underpriestess spying in hopes of learning something she could use in a quest for power? Ulrica brushed past the bench where her sister lounged and peered into the shadows. She saw nothing suspicious and turned to her twin. “So be it. Norna will serve the temple as a drab.”
Bodlesa rose. “Then in the morning, I’ll leave for the megara.”
“I’m afraid not. You have a duty to the clan and the temple. You must give birth to two daughters.”
“One childbirth was enough to endure.”
“Then you will remain here until you agree.” Ulrica called to the waiting warriors. “Take my sister to a meditation cell.”
“You have no right to order me to do anything. I am Keltoi of Keltoi.”
“And I am the Voice of Midra. You will do your duty. Until you agree to the demands of the goddess, you will remain in the cell.”
The women grasped Bodlesa’s arms. She spat. “With a man I did not choose.”
“The goddess cares not for who sires your daughters, only that his lines are pure and you acknowledge the infants.” Ulrica smiled. After a few doses of somma, Bodlesa would have no choice except to follow the command.
Norna scurried out of the bathing room. After the evening meal, she’d come here to luxuriate in the baths the way she’d never been able to in the megara. The curfew bell startled her. Would she be punished for being out of the sleeping chamber after the bell chimed?
In her haste to reach the room, she turned the wrong way. She halted at the top of the staircase. Her mother’s voice raised in anger caused her to back away. Then she saw her aunt on the stairs. Norna turned and ran down the hall.
As Norna crawled into bed, she pulled the covers over her head to muffle the excited chatter of the other occupants of the room. For them, the end of the lunar of the Dark Moon would bring joy. Her future was unsettled. She had no desire to become a priestess and remain in the temple for the rest of her life. Nor did she want to return to the megara and be dragged into Prasutus’ bed the way her mother had threatened.
A scrap of conversation reached her. “The chapel is interesting. There’s a wonderful tapestry on one wall and a map of the nomes made of tiles on the other. Did you know we’re almost to the ocean here?”
The bells chimed again. Her companions settled on their cots. Norna listened as their breathing took on the rhythms of sleep. With care, she rose from the narrow bed. If she could see this map, she could learn how far ’twas to Bethsada.
She slipped into the hall. Eternal torches set in brackets along the walls softened the deep shadows. She crept toward the stairs. When she heard her mother’s voice, she pressed against a door.
“Leave me alone. I won’t drink your vile brew.”
“Will you allow me to train Norna as my successor?”
“A drab nursed her. A drab raised her. A drab I have named her and as one, she will remain.” The frost in Bodlesa’s voice chilled Norna.
“What if Midra wants her? The signs in the cup were strange. Four colors, followed by red. That is the color of this nome.”
Bodlesa’s wild laughter made Norna shiver. “And the color of death and war. Has the goddess marked her? When I dragged her to the baths before we left the megara, her skin was unmarked. She is mine to give or hold. She will have no high place in the temple or the megara. As one doubly misbegotten, she must pay for the life the Healwoman gave to her.”
“Will you return to the megara and willingly take Prasutus to your bed and produce the daughters who are needed?”
“You ask too much.”
“Until you agree, the cell will be your home.” The iron in Ulrica’s voice made Norna ease away. “Dear sister, your will is strong, but mine is as firm as the surface on the roads throughout the nomes. Hold her while she drinks.”
Norna fled along the shadowy hall and returned to her cot. Tears flowed down her cheeks. What could she do? Twice misbegotten. A drab she’d been named. She couldn’t accept that fate. She had to escape and find a refuge. Would the Healwoman give shelter to someone like her?
* * * *
The soft chiming of the night bells roused Norna. One. Two. She slid to the edge of the cot. She hadn’t meant to sleep. She had to be far from the temple by morning. Once she pulled the brown skirt and tunic over her shift, she reached for her pack. Though her mother had named her a drab, she wouldn’t accept the sentence of eternal servitude.
Norna hugged herself. She must be gone before Ulrica fastened the bonding bracelet on her wrist so the prongs pierced her skin. Removal left scars and anyone she met would know what she had been.
She added the wooden comb and the woolen stockings she’d washed to the pack. Near the door, she paused to examine the row of boots. The soles of hers were thin. She wasn’t sure how far she had to travel. With the winter lunars about to begin, she needed sturdy footwear. One pair was too small. A second, lined with paca fleece, fit perfectly. Her brown cloak hung with the others. The thin wool provided little protection from the icy winds. She snatched the one that matched the purloined boots and carried it over her arm.
Norna slipped through the hall and crept down the stairs. Before leaving the temple, she needed to stop in the chapel and study the map.
When she entered the triangular room, she dropped the cloak and her pack on one of the wooden benches. Flickering lights on the altar did little to brighten the gloom. She saw the mosaic panel on one of the side walls. After lifting a votive lamp, she moved closer. She found Keltoi and traced the road from the megara to the temple. Then she looked for Bethsada, home of the Healwomen and her chosen destination.
She sounded the names of the places on the map. There, she thought. She had to travel south and west to the place of refuge for women. The distance seemed great but she had no other choice.
When she returned the votive lamp to the altar, she saw the testing gems. Each one bore an engraved image from one of the nomes. With a finger, she touched the firelion of Keltoi. The red stone glowed. In turn, she brushed the amber sandcat, the blue water lynx and the white air tigre. For an instant, each gem glowed. Curious, she thought, but there was no time to search for a meaning.
The silver cup caught her attention. She lifted it and nodded. Bits broken from the cup could be traded for supplies. She tucked the cup in her pack and slipped from the chapel.